This year the U.S. News & World Annual Rankings Report ranked Gonzaga University No. 4 among the west’s 140 regional universities, and No.1 for best undergraduate teaching.
In spring 2018, U.S. News invited top academics to list the schools with a dedicated faculty committed to undergraduate teaching. This means college presidents, provosts and admissions deans participated in an annual U.S. News peer assessment survey, where they were asked to nominate up to 15 schools whose faculty and administration are committed to teaching undergraduate students in a high-quality manner.
The surveys revealed Gonzaga, Whitworth University and Chapman University as the top three in undergraduate teaching, in that order.
The report notably emphasizes the peer assessment surveys and don’t strictly refer to the success rates of the classroom. Rather, GU is honored with this title for standard academic success and for the overall classroom experience that can’t be rated by test grades and retention rates.
Deborah Stevenson, director of the Center for Student Academic Success (CSAS), is one of the many faculty members at GU who said GU’s learning environment beyond the classroom helps set the university apart.
CSAS provides students with academic advising and course enrollment, a refer program regarding student health in academics, disability services and learning strategies management programs.
Perhaps the most influential role of CSAS is the first interactions incoming Zags have with the university. The faculty in this office also work the behind the scenes of first-year students’ experience when they create newly enrolled students’ first semester class schedules.
CSAS puts extra emphasis on First Year Experience programs to assure each incoming student a solid foundation as they begin their college careers.
“I believe strongly in a curriculum designed for first years that becomes a nice transitional course exposing students to all of the best that Gonzaga has to offer,” Stevenson said.
One addition to the new core curriculum, which was introduced in fall 2016, is the new first year seminar requirement, which exposes students to seminar classes that practice active learning, critical thought and reflection.
Scott Starbuck, who has his Ph.D. in religious studies, teaches a first seminar course called Psalms and the Human Condition.
According to Starbuck, this class is,e “structured to allow students an opportunity to begin to discover, develop, and integrate their whole person intellectually, spiritually, culturally, and emotionally. This and other [FYS] classes are one of the things that make Gonzaga unique.”
Just as the surveys reflected, CSAS concerns student success with more than just clean transcripts. In alignment with the school mission statement, CSAS focuses on the wellbeing of the whole student.
“When you’re happier, you’re more successful, you’re just going to make this place a better place to be — for you, your friends and future students,” said Stevenson.
CSAS is not the only department where faculty members prioritize the holistic mission of the university in its work.
Kris Morehouse, senior lecturer of communication studies, practices the mission statement inside and outside of her classroom.
“I’m kind of a Jesuit groupie in the idea that our education should be used to make the world a kinder and more inclusive place,” she said. “So, I feel like my teaching has to go hand-in-hand with the mission.”
In her classroom, Morehouse’s first concern each semester is promoting student’s individuality and comfortability, she said.
“We’re collective in the classroom experience, but we’re all bringing our individual experience into that classroom, and I like to know what that individual experience is,” she said.
At the beginning of the semester, Morehouse’s first goal is creating classroom community. She insists students learn each name in the room and she begins classes with discussion activities to engage students in conversation before addressing class material.
“The more you can do to make students feel like they’re seen in the classroom is really important. If a student is not comfortable, it is not a great place for the student to learn,” said Morehouse.
“Public speaking was truly terrifying for me, but Kris had helped me turn those faces in the audience into friends, over the course of the year it just felt like I was helping them to get to know me instead of memorize some big scary speech,” junior Catherine Collins said.
Just like the professors, many GU students work hard to contribute and benefit from the holistic Jesuit education.
“Working with CCE for the past two years, I’ve seen the journey of teachers trying out the community-engaged learning courses in the classroom, and the excitement that that has generated about interactive learning has positive outcomes for the university’s immediate neighbors and reveals the kind of role Gonzaga wants to play in the Spokane community,” Collins said.